The Wilmette businessman was a top fundraiser and unofficial adviser to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was mentioned in the 13-week trial as “Public Official A” but who has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
This will be the gift that keeps on giving for those who oppose Blagojevich, and it will have widespread implications for the governor, the state legislature and federal prosecutors.
For starters, Rezko’s guilty verdict damages the governor’s credibility when he says he wants to “improve” recently approved ethics legislation, says Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield and director of the Sunshine database for campaign contributions. He says the verdict heightens the chance that legislators would override any changes the governor makes to the ethics reform. (See more here.)
The verdict also makes it more likely that legislators will continue to talk about impeaching the governor. The state Constitution gives the Illinois House the power to investigate impeachment, which already has started behind the scenes to “be prepared,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan last week during a Statehouse news conference. “We’ve already done research on impeachment. Our attorney, Mr. [David] Ellis, is chock-full of conclusions.” The Senate would have to approve an impeachment by a two-thirds majority.
Even if no impeachment trial unfolds, Redfield says the Rezko verdict damages the governor’s credibility and makes him weaker politically, as more people could be willing to take him on or ignore him.
It also could get worse legally. The guilty verdict gives federal prosecutors, led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, leverage when trying to negotiate with Rezko to see if he’ll cooperate with ongoing investigations involving the governor’s administration and political campaign. “They really weren’t going to convict or decide whether or not to indict the governor based on these specific convictions,” Redfield says. “This gives them leverage along with the other charges that Rezko hasn’t even been tried on yet to try and see if he’s willing to make a deal.”
Rezko received two different indictments on the same day in October 2006. The first, which led to today’s verdict, linked him to an intricate scheme of so-called pay-to-play politics between 2001 and 2004. He was found guilty on some of the charges that he collaborated with at least five other people to use political clout to influence two high-powered state boards, allowing him to collect illegal fees and force political campaign donations. But the jury found Rezko not guilty on one of the most serious charges of attempted extortion, or illegally acquiring extra money from a company seeking to do business with the state.
The second indictment made allegations of business fraud involving a pizza franchise. Redfield says prosecutors could use those allegations to pressure Rezko to cooperate before the trial of Chistopher Kelly airs some more dirty laundry this fall. Kelly, a close Blagojevich friend and former campaign manager, was indicted in December 2007 for tax fraud by allegedly hiding more than $1 million of income over five years.
Prosecutors’ case against Rezko relied on one of the governor’s appointees, Stuart Levine, as the star witness. Levine pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering in October 2006, but his testimony during Rezko’s trial revealed long-term drug abuse and an unreliable memory. Fitzgerald said in a Chicago news conference, seen from media coverage available on the Web, that he would not comment on Levine, as he could be a witness in other proceedings.
Rezko’s attorneys intend to appeal, according to news accounts.
The governor held a Chicago news conference later this evening. Here's the statement we received from the governor's office and the statement Blagojevich read during the news conference:
Tony Rezko is a friend and was a supporter. On a personal level, I am deeply sad for what has happened to Tony. I am profoundly sad for his children and his wife Rita. My heart goes out to all of them. The jury’s decision is yet another reminder that ours is a system of government that is ruled by laws, and not by men. I respect the decision made by the jury. As for me, I will continue to get up every single day to work as hard as I possibly can for the people. Tomorrow I will meet with the legislative leaders so that we can balance the budget in a way that is fair and helps people. And I am working on passing a capital bill that will stimulate our economy and create more than 500,000 jobs.